PISA – a global educational arms race? (ESERA symposium, Helsinki sept 2015)

ESERA 2015 (European Science Education Research Association) Helsinki, Finland 31/8 – 4/9 2015 Invited symposium:
The PISA Science Assessments and the Implications for Science Education: Uses and Abuses

The four symposium (short) papers/proposals:

PISA Symposium_ESERA_Helsinki_2015_abstracts

My contribution: PISA – a global educational arms race?
Svein Sjøberg
University of Oslo, ILS, Dept of Teacher Education and School Research Norway svein.sjoberg@ils.uio.no

The PISA project has to be understood as a social phenomenon and a political project, in essence a well-funded instrument of power. The PISA project has steadily increased its influence on the educational discourse and educational policies in the now 70 participating countries. The educational debate has become global, and the race to improve PISA-rankings has become high priority in many countries. For governments the PISA-test is a high-stakes test. Governments are blamed for low scores, and governments are quick to take the honour when results are improving. National curricula, cultural values and priorities are pushed aside.

The PISA project has positive virtues in potentially raising debates about the purpose and contents of science education and science for literacy and citizenship. Science educators may appreciate the thinking behind the framework for testing, but we also need to consider the wider social, ideological context of PISA. In particular how PISA rankings are used to legitimize educational reforms that may contradict principles and ideals that educators value.

Many of the reforms that are legitimized by PISA can be characterized as New Public Management and neoliberal policies. Key words in these reforms are globalization, standardization, belief in competition, free choice and market thinking. The presentation will give examples of the uses and misuses of PISA, and will raise some of the problems caused by PISA as a global measure of quality. The battle to improve PISA rankings may conflict with our work to make science relevant, contextualized, interesting and motivating for young learners


Since the first publication of PISA results in 2001, the results have become a kind of global “gold standard” for educational quality – a single measure of the quality of the education system. In many countries, educational reforms have been launched as direct responses to the PISA results. While some try to copy the PISA winners; others do just the opposite of what high achieving countries actually do.

The intentions of PISA are, not surprisingly, related to the overall political aims OECD and the underlying concern for economic development in a competitive global free market economy. PISA is constructed and intended for the 30+ industrialized and wealthy OECD countries, but has later been joined by a similar number of other countries with developing “economies”. When the PISA results are presented, they are seen as an indicator for future competitive edge in a global economy (Sjøberg, 2015).

The “common sense” assumption that the country’s future depends on success in PISA, may also account for the extreme importance that is now attributed PISA rankings: Bad rankings on PISA are thought to be bad signals for the future of the country. Research on the relationship between a PISA (and TIMSS)-scores and economic development and other indicators on welfare shows that this assumption does not hold true when the analysis is limited to the comparable OECD-countries (Tienken, 2008). Much of the political panic that is created by what is perceived as low national PISA-scores is undermined by such findings.

The PISA undertaking is a well-funded multinational “techno-scientific” exercise, undoubtedly the world’s largest and most costly empirical study of schools and education. Given the size and importance, PISA has to be understood not just as a study of student learning, but also as a “social phenomenon” in its wider political, social and cultural context, as also acknowledged by people who played a key role in the OECD preparations of PISA. As chair of Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) in the OECD, Professor Ulf P Lundgren had until 2000 the key role in the preparation of PISA. Ten years later, he writes:

“The outcomes of PISA we hoped could stimulate a debate on learning outcomes not only from an educational perspective but also a broad cultural and social perspective. Rarely has a pious hope been so dashed. [….]. (Lundgren, 2011).

PISA rankings create anxiety and discomfort in practically all countries, even in high-scoring countries. (Alexander, 2012). This produces an urge for politicians and bureaucrats to do “something” to rectify the situation. But since PISA does not tell us much about cause and effect, the creativity blossoms, and educational reforms that are not empirically founded are introduced, often overnight.

Consequently, in many countries new curricula have been introduced, caused by “PISA-shocks”, (e.g. Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Germany and Japan). In many countries national standards as well as new systems of obligatory national testing have been introduced. Some of these are directly influenced by PISA documents. Many countries publish such test scores as league tables, where school districts and schools are ranked according to these scores. Some countries have introduced incentives such as salary systems related to test scores for teachers and (in particular) principals. Free choice of schools further exacerbate the importance of the rankings, often widening the gap between schools, as well as creating ways to “improve” test rankings. Such rankings have several consequences, like the obvious “teaching to the test”, but also influence the price of neighbourhood housing, widening socio-economic gaps between districts.

The strife for better test scores also serves commercial interests. Companies deliver products like tests and teaching materials that are supposed to increase scores, and cramming schools make a fortune by preparing students to achieve higher test scores. It is interesting to note that the world’s largest educational company, Pearson Inc. now is directly involved in the running of PISA 2015. The partnership with PISA/OECD is also a strategic door-opener for Pearson into the global educational market. In company with OECD, Pearson also produces “The Learning Curve”, a ranking of nations according to a set of test-based indicators. These rankings get media coverage and further create anxiety among policymakers. The result is a further pressure toward doing “something” to climb the league tables.

PISA is now used to legitimize neoliberal policies and reforms that are duly labelled New Public Management (Møller & Skedsmo, 2013). The PISA outcomes are also leading to an emerging global governance and standardization of education, as also noted by key educational experts (Ball, 2012; Rinne, 2008). The process is also called “governing with numbers” and the “PISA effect in Europe (Grek, 2009).

This presentation will have two critiques (Sjøberg, 2015). The first is an inherent feature of the PISA undertaking, and hence cannot be “fixed”. The PISA testing framework (OECD, 2013) is a most interesting document that should be used to inspire discussions about the purpose and contents of science curriculum and teaching. However, problems arise when the brave intentions of the PISA framework are translated to concrete test items to be used in a great variety of languages, cultures and countries. It will be argued that it is impossible to construct a test that in a fair and objective way can be used across countries and cultures to assess the quality of learning in “real-life” situations with “authentic texts”. The requirement of “fair testing” implies by necessity that local, current and topical issues must be excluded. This runs against most current thinking in e.g. science education, where “science in context” and “localized curricula” are ideals promoted by e.g. UNESCO, science educators as well as in national curricula.

The second critique draws on some of the intriguing results that emerge from analysis of PISA data: It seems that pupils in high-scoring countries also develop the most negative attitudes to the subject. It also seems that PISA scores are unrelated to educational resources, funding, class size etc. PISA scores also seem to be negatively related to the use of active teaching methods, inquiry based instruction and the use of ICT. Whether one believes in PISA or not, such intriguing results need to be discussed.



Alexander, R. (2012). Moral Panic, Miracle Cures and Educational Policy: what can we really learn from international comparison? Scottish Educational Review 44 (1), 4-21

Ball, S.J. (2012). Global education Inc: New policy networks and the neo-liberal imaginary. London: Routledge

Grek, S. (2009). Governing by numbers: the PISA ‘effect’ in Europe. Journal of Education Policy, 24:1, 23-37

Lundgren, U. P. (2011) PISA as a Political Instrument in Pereyra, M.A., Kotthoff, H.G and Cowen, R (Eds.) PISA Under Examination. Changing Knowledge, Changing Tests, and Changing Schools. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers

Meyer, H.D & Benavot, A. (Eds) (2013). PISA, Power and Policy: the emergence of global educational governance, Oxford: Symposium Books

Møller, J.& G. Skedsmo (2013). Modernising education: New Public Management reform in the Norwegian education system, Journal of Educational Administration and History, 45:4, 336-353

OECD (2012). The PISA 2015 Assessment Framework: Key competencies in reading, mathematics and science. http://www.oecd.org/pisa/pisaproducts/pisa2015draftframeworks.htm

Rinne, R (2008) The growing supranational impacts of the OECD and the EU on national education policies and the case of Finland, Policy Futures in Education, 6, 665–680

Sjøberg, S (2015). PISA and global educational governance. A critique of the project, its uses and implications. Eurasia Journal of Mathematics, Science & Technology Education, 2015, 11(1), 111-127

Tienken, C. (2008). Rankings of International Achievement Test Performance and Economic Strength: Correlation or Conjecture? International Journal of Education Policy and Leadership 3(4).

Photo Below: The involved contributors: Magnus Oskarsson, Svein Sjøberg, Margareta Serder, Per Kind (discussant), Jonathan Osborne


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